Even when momentous events are happening, TV studios stick to old formulaic ways of representing them on screen…
Whether the news is momentous or everyday, the representation within TV studios remains unchanged. Channels, inexplicably, refuse to cast their nets wider. Even if you decided that in the two days when the excitement over the passing of the constitutional amendment bill peaked, the focus would be on the politics of the bill, to fall back yet again on party spokespersons and Delhi editors was unforgiveable.
Televised parliamentary debates come as an occasional reminder that there are others in our polity who can be articulate. There was no reason for channels not to have celebrated the first step in achieving reservation for women in Parliament by jettisoning, for a change, Messrs Manish Tiwari and Ravi Shankar Prasad and getting in some of the men and women who spoke in the Rajya Sabha. Pass over Brinda Karat and Jayanti Natarajan and bring us Prabha Thakkar, the congresswoman from Rajasthan who spoke, or Kanimozhi, or Sharad Joshi who spoke of other methods of representation, or indeed the independent MP from West Bengal or the parliamentarian from the Bahujan Samaj Party. Then we might have got more views on how members of parliament see the prospect of ejection from long held constituencies in the interests of social engineering. There were many questions that went unasked in the excited obsession with the flurry Mamata Banerjee created.
Same old faces
Historic occasions surely require a little more effort in getting in panelists appropriate to the occasion. If being telegenic is the criteria, one can understand the choice of Nafisa Ali, but otherwise there are surely people in the city of Delhi within and outside parliament who might have been more thoughtful choices? There are political scientists on the campuses and in the think-tanks who could have been questioned on whether representation will lead to empowerment. But when the mood in television studios is celebratory and anchors take to congratulating leaders instead of seeking their soundbites on the challenges ahead, quality discussion will get the short shrift.
In terms of providing fodder for debate, this piece of legislation has major aspects to it. A little planning and imagination would have done it more justice. In the run up to the vote in the Lok Sabha one hopes to hear more MPs speak about how rotation will affect them. If party whips restrict free airing of opinions, more independents or former MPs need to be heard from. If Bangladesh is the only country that has reservation as opposed to party quotas, voluntary or mandated, could we not have a link up to someone there on how it has worked, considering the ease with which we link up to panellists in Pakistan to discuss conflict-centred subjects?
The other bane of television as a site for discussion is its propensity to seize gleefully upon personalities at the first opportunity. The minute Mamata Banerjee chose to ask her party MPs to abstain, almost all news channels swung away from the debate in the RS to speculate about her whimsy. If you did not have a Rajya Sabha TV channel those who wanted to follow the debate could not have done so. NDTV's ‘first exclusive' (as opposed to also-ran exclusives?) with Sonia Gandhi ran over and over again on the 9th evening, and in a rival studio, Rajdeep Sardesai opened the post-vote discussion with the question, Is a passing of the bill a personal victory for Sonia Gandhi? Perhaps it was a legitimate question but it set the tone for the rest of the evening.
Ratings-driven television news will be personality-driven — that is one more reason why Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni needs to walk the talk when she says she is getting ready to “do something” about television audience measurement in this country. Many sins of omission and commission by the television industry are currently laid at the door of TAM and its system of measuring what viewers want to see.
This column unfortunately goes to press midweek, it is entirely likely that in the days following the vote more aspects of this momentous step were debated. There will doubtless be, today, weekend shows on the subject. If those in the studios are not the usual suspects I promise to eat my criticism.
Tailpiece: Last week's debate was the first major outing for the Rajya Sabha channel which specialises in having no signal for the better part of any 24-hour period. It needs to get either better technology or sharper manpower to back up its operation. Identifying the member who was speaking was something that it did only well after a person started speaking, and then most fleetingly. And why did it not consider re-running portions of the debate that night?